False starts and blind alleys – bringing secular dharma practitioners together

Nothing is permanent. This includes the ways we come together as dharma practitioners. Without a dharmic Google Maps to show us the way, we are continually developing our understanding of what it means to be part of a community of secular meditation practitioners. Expect false starts, and don’t be too surprised when you discover you’ve gone down a blind alley.

I’m one of three people who run One Mindful Breath, Wellington’s community of secular dharma practitioners. You may not have heard of OMB; until the end of 2016 we were known as Simply Meditation. The group was started by my wife, Despina, with the intention that I would teach meditation to her girlfriends, who were keen to experience the benefits. We needed a name which would not scare them off.

These were people who were happy to describe themselves as ‘Orthodox’ when it came to religion, and who were happy to be part of the community of Greek New Zealanders they were born into. Why did they come? Like many who take part in introduction to meditation courses, and now mindfulness programmes, they were hoping it would offer them a way to reduce their suffering.

Four years on, three out of the original four still come from time to time (one died, sadly), mainly to our Simply Meditation Secular Mindfulness Saturdays, and we no longer fit in our living room but rent a meeting room from the Quakers.

Our time as Simply Meditation made it clear that we were more than the name suggested, and that we need a varied programme which has both predictability and flexibility. The month now starts with Beginners Mind, introducing sitting, walking and loving kindness meditations; by default every evening had previously been a beginners session. Other Wednesday evenings may include walking meditation, a talk from and discussion with a teacher overseas – Australia, France and the USA so far – and an evening at which everyone brings or is given a notebook and a pen and asked to write down what went on during their meditation session.

Here are some of the other lessons we’ve learned.

  • Start small, stay small, it’s manageable
  • End each evening with tea and biscuits – nurture your community
  • Look for ways you can engage as a group in the wider community
  • Let people know the group exists with a simple website, it’s never been easier
  • Give out printed handouts often
  • Think carefully about the group’s name; any name you choose will attract some and repel others – so who do you want to attract, and what kind of person do you not want in the group?
  • Most people want to be handed the solution to their suffering on a plate – it can be dispiriting to be told they need to put in effort, to be persistent
  • Take the leadership role seriously and decide what kind of facilitator or teacher you want, or want to be – one who encourages participants to take responsibility, or one who wants a flock of followers?
  • Create a culture of generosity – don’t be scared to ask for financial support from those who turn up regularly, in particular those who understand the benefits of belonging to your group
  • A regular schedule is really important; weekly is better, if you meet less frequently than fortnightly people will find it hard to seriously engage
  • Face-to-face or online? There’s a place for both. Very real connections come with a face-to-face community but I do have good one-to-one relationships with individuals around the world and I’m a member of the new online group, Re~Collective, so I don’t discount online community entirely; it just feels so different.
  • Send out a short email newsletter either monthly or timed to the regularity of your meetings; for non-geeks, TinyLetter is a lot easier to use than MailChimp
  • Connecting with other similarly minded individuals and communities around the country, and around the world, offers lots of wonderful opportunities for the exchange of ideas and experiences
  • Don’t expect too much from others; few will be willing to engage, to take part, and many won’t have the desire to take responsibility for their own suffering, and the alleviation of their suffering – they won’t take your group as seriously as the organisers
  • Above all keep your sense of humour and share it.

The people who come along to One Mindful Breath Wednesday evening sessions have been described as a coalition of practitioners from different traditions who are working together with agreed aims. A lot of energy goes into One Mindful Breath: planning our weekly meetings, finding interesting material for a monthly newsletter; the work of a care committee to oversee it all. It really is worth it, though.

• Ramsey Margolis, who produces the In This Moment newsletter this first appeared in, lives in the capital city of Aotearoa New Zealand, Wellington.

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  1. Sean Wright
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post Ramsey. I live in rural/remote South Australia and not having a community close at hand ( the closest Secular Buddhist group, indeed the closest Buddhist group of any description is 2 hours away) is a big frustration. I do have an old hall about 10 meters from my house though, so I was thinking of starting my own group.

    I have reservations though due to my lack of experience. I have been teaching myself to meditate and am wary that if I set up a group that I will become it’s default leader/organiser/ font of knowledge and its not something I really feel comfortable doing.

    Still it may be my only option.

  2. Posted February 23, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Sean, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought over the past few days.

    Go for it! I suspect you’ll be surprised how far people will travel for a group like the one you’re describing. I also think that you’ll find people in the big centres around you who are willing to support you in one way or another, whether in person or at a distance. You may find yourself sitting on your own from time to time – I did.

    It took me years to be comfortable with leading a group, so I totally understand your hesitation. My recommendation is that you start by considering your role as that of a ‘spiritual friend’ to those who come along, and that you make good use of recorded dharma talks and Zoom (or Skype) to bring in experienced teachers from around the world. Here in Wellington we try to bring in an overseas teacher once a month.

    The biggest regret I made with the first meditation group I started was to ask other people locally to teach. Most of them had been monks in the forest sangha and brought both the religiosity of that group and the sense of superiority that ‘the sangha’ have in that group. Doing so, I gave away responsibility for the teachings more often than necessary.

    If there’s anything I can do to help, get in touch. And that applies to other readers, wherever you are in the world.

  3. Sean Wright
    Posted February 23, 2017 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your considered response Ramsey.

    FYI the website didn’t send me notification that you had responded (is it supposed to?). I only knew about the response due to your direct email.

    I have decided to go ahead with it. By coincidence an opportunity arose at work to join a research/professional development group with a focus on mindfulness so it appears that there are others, probably with a background in MBSR that I can also connect with.

    First step will be to put some flyers out and hold a meeting for interested parties. I am also not averse to sitting by myself 🙂

    My hesitation re leadership is that I work as a teacher already and it is very easy for me to fall into a habit of sounding like I know what I am talking about and having other people believe it 🙂

    I will contact you directly re some ideas for setting up democratised groups. I caught a Martine Batchelor recording where she was talking about her own group, but it only hinted at how they organised it.

    Thanks for the heads up re asking other teachers from other traditions. One of my concerns is my lack of knowledge as compared to other folks.

    I plan to be open about that and I suppose if people feel they need a more experienced teacher to follow, rather than a group facilitator to participate with then that’s what they need.

    On the other hand rural/small town community group politics I have noted are usually ripe with political and power struggles, so guidelines that protect the group and its aims from strong personalities would be good.

    But perhaps I shouldn’t count those chickens before the eggs have even been laid. 🙂

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